Mummering, a Newfoundland Christmas tradition | Print |
Written by Adam Carter   
Friday, 02 December 2011 14:12

Mummering is an old Newfoundland tradition that has largely died out as it once was in the province – part Christmas, part Halloween, and seemingly bizarre for the rest of Canada.

When mummering, people dress up in colourful garb so they're completely disguised, and go from house to house to party and celebrate the Christmas season.

Mummering was once widespread in the province. According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, it's an old Christmas custom from England in the Middle Ages.

Although it is unclear precisely when this tradition was brought to Newfoundland by the English, the earliest record dates back to 1819. It died out in the 19th century after a ban on the practise in St. John’s, but was modestly revived in the mid ’80s by the folk band Simani, with “The Mummers Song”.

Now it persists mostly as a parade that runs through St. John's at Christmastime.

My grandmother, Emily Carter, is 75 now, but she went mummering a lot when she was 15 or 16.

“We’d dress up in old clothes, and have a mask on, sometimes we’d have a guitar, or an old accordion,” she said. “We’d knock on the door and say ‘any mummers allowed in?’”

The disguised partygoers would then eat, drink, and dance – all the while the homeowner would try to figure out who his guests really were.

“They’d say ‘I know that fellow there because he’s got his mother’s big bra on.’ or ‘I know so and so because the dress she’s got on is her mother's.’”

“When we were dancing, you could feel the floor shaking," she said. "We were afraid we were going to go through the floor into the basement.”

My grandfather, Harold Carter, would often go, too, and said he always looked forward to it. “It was a great bit of fun,” he said.

“We’d go out every night until one or two in the morning, then we’d go out the next night and do it again,” he said.

But if the mummers weren’t allowed in, there could be trouble.

 “That would only happen when somebody didn’t let you in – you’d tear down their gates or something foolish like that, but that didn’t happen very often.”

Pat Byrne, an expert in Newfoundland folklore from Memorial University, echoed that mischief.

“Where I came from, up in Placentia Bay – if you didn’t let the mummers in, somebody might take a big pile of sheep s--t and throw it down their chimney,” Byrne told thedailyplanet.com.

“Another one was to take a blubber barrel, which is a barrel full of cod oil, and bring it up to their front door and torch it,” he said.

“The stink of cod oil would purvey the whole house and all the neighbouring houses as well. But most of it was done in fun.”

Byrne said mummering is an odd kind of mixture between trick-or-treating and Christmas.

“You were expected to have a drink. So by the time you went around the harbour, even if you only got a drink at every second house, you were pretty well in the bag, he said. “And you got a bit crazier as the night went on.”

Byrne said some people could use mummering as an excuse to settle old scores.

“For instance, a fellow might take liberty with another fellows wife – grab her by the ass, something like that if the husband of the wife he’s mauling had cast an eye at his wife sometime during the year.”

Byrne said the practise has largely died out in the province, even after the revival brought about by "The Mummers Song".

“In the outports anyway, the communities are under so much stress these days, economically. There’s no one around to do mummering, the men are all up in Alberta somewhere, so it’s only the women and children at home. In a very negative way, there’s not a hell of a lot to celebrate.”

Byrne said mummering that is something that only really happens when times are prosperous.

"If half the men in the community are away working, it doesn’t lend itself to that,” he said.

“It’s unusual. It’s not something that’s well known across the country. You have mummering or something similar in many African countries – so it’s not unique to Newfoundland, but it’s unique in the Canadian context."



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